“Time for Chocolate,” a play written by TU professor Bruce Dean Willis, recently had its premiere production in Tyrell Hall, and was directed by Rogers State University professor David Blakely. The play, Willis explained, is based on a section of “Cantares mexicanos,” a collection of Aztec poems “about a late 15th-century gathering of leaders in central Mexico.”
Willis noted that from its first draft in 2009, “Time for Chocolate” has developed and expanded from a close interpretation of the source material into its current form: a character-driven piece focused on the importance of language and food as ways to bring people together.
The play is centered around Stone Creek, Lord of the Aztec-controlled city of Huejotzingo, hoping to teach his athletically-oriented son Gold Eagle about the importance of “flower-song,” a style of speaking Willis described as “poetic composition, recitation, and movement.” At the same time, Stone Creek is preparing to host a party for his fellow flower-song composers.
Of course, what is a party without chocolate — a frequent talking point in the play and an integral part of the ancient culture Willis is looking to represent. The importance of chocolate in Willis’ view comes from the fact that “cacao was a luxury item and its beans could be used as money… [but] once you’ve ground up your cacao into chocolate, it’s got to be consumed — the process can’t be run backwards.”
Much as the gods consumed blood, the characters in “Time for Chocolate” see chocolate as one of the highest forms of earthly pleasure. The fleeting nature of the chocolate drink, which must be consumed quickly, sets itself in contrast to the view of flower-song, which Stone Creek feels is a way to let the voice of one’s ancestors flow through them. Chocolate is to enjoy the present; flower-song is to honor the past and lay a foundation for the future.
The flower-song performances from Stone Creek and other party attendees translate to a series of careful and eloquent monologues and characters communicating through symbolism and repetition of phrases. Initially, this style of speaking may seem inaccessible to some viewers: most people don’t readily associate ancient Mexico with an almost Shakespearean speaking style. Despite this, one is able to adjust to the speaking style after a short time and actors were able to convey their character’s emotions well enough that those having difficulty following the flower-song can still understand what’s happening.
Although, admittedly, there’s not too much happening in terms of an overarching plot. To some viewers, this may be a flaw in the play’s storytelling. There aren’t a lot of things driving the plot forward and there isn’t complete resolution for the conflicts Willis does set up. From another perspective, it allows the play to be solely concerned with its language and representation of the ancient culture.
Willis feels that the use of flower-song in the play is “a corrective to a generalized Eurocentric worldview.” By giving an opportunity for “the English-speaking populace of the United States [that] has a limited knowledge of indigenous communities” to experience the format and nuance of ancient language, Willis hopes to “bring focused attention to cultural contributions from the indigenous and African communities of the Americas.”
Given this desire, it’s no surprise that the language is the true centerpiece of the “Time for Chocolate.” Although the first part of the play is largely focused on conversation between Stone Creek and Gold Eagle, as more composers come to the party, the play evolves into a series of monologues that gives the vibe of a poetry reading more than a scripted play.
This feeling is amplified by the use of the stage and the auditorium’s entrances. Characters presenting their flower-song poetry directly face the audience, with other characters hitting hand drums to show their approval and provide a rhythm for the speech. When characters arrive at Stone Creek’s home, they enter behind the audience and walk around them, occasionally greeting audience members as they approach the stage. This gives the audience the feeling that they’re a part of Stone Creek’s party, an observer of ancient language and a participant in keeping its culture alive.
Another aspect of the ancient culture “Time for Chocolate” looks to keep alive is the dance prevalent in the time period. In the second half of the play, a flower-song composer named Painted Mask arrives at the party with a group of dancers in beautiful and elaborate costumes, who spend one of the longer segments of the play performing an ancient dance. The dance is performed by the Tulsa-based Danza Santa Cruz, “for whom many ancient aesthetic traditions related to flower song are still very much alive,” according to Willis.
Though the dance itself was excellent, it went on for long enough that it was an overall detriment to the flow of the play. The dancers arrived, performed and promptly left with the exception of two who stayed on stage and sat quietly until the end of the play. Perhaps the performance could have been trimmed down and more group members could stay onstage and use their instruments and voices to accent parts of the character’s flower-song poetry. As it stands, the group is far too isolated for how skilled the dance was and how much time clearly went into the costuming.
Despite this light pacing hiccup and a bit of initial difficulty approaching the poetic language, “Time for Chocolate” gives viewers an intricate and loving view of the performances and philosophies of a culture often cast aside by modern nations. Though there are no new performances of “Time for Chocolate” scheduled, Willis plans to use this experience to continue writing plays and notes that “it’s been an honor and a pleasure to be involved with the other Fellows in the 2016-17 OCH Food Seminar, and also to have worked with the production crew, the cast, and the dancers for this production!”